May 4, 2015
Spotlight On: New Orleans
A collaboration of community and culture
Stores within the shopping districts in New Orleans are thriving and fiercely loyal to local artists and cultural heritage. Aside from a plethora of party items specific to the Crescent City spirit – including Mardi Gras masks, beads and anything with a Fleur de Lis illustration – the culmination of Southern charm, French history and tight-knit sense of community makes The Mask Factory rare for more than its products.
The family-owned and -operated Mask Factory in the city center on Decatur Street offers many of these New Orleans staples, some even locally produced like artist-signed porcelain masks and handmade voodoo dolls. But what isn’t up for purchase is the store’s rich community history that the family continues to preserve in their day-to-day business.
The brick-and-mortar beginning
Co-owned with her husband, Sajjad, Irshad Malik has been in business for 33 years. “We are a family-owned and family-run business. My husband is there almost every day, and my children are running the business alongside my husband. There is a familial bond you have with a place and the locals if you’ve been there for more than three decades,” Irshad Malik said. “The people and the city is what inspired me to work in the French Quarter in the first place.”
Although Malik has an extended history in the community, she wasn’t born into the success she’s attained in the party industry.
“I graduated with a degree in business administration, but much of my knowledge in the business realm stems from my undergraduate days balancing multiple jobs,” Malik recounts. “As a student, I would often work three jobs at a time. I juggled being a bank teller, cashier at Popeyes (Chicken), RadioShack and Eckerd’s drugstore with one dream in mind – to own my own business one day.”
While continuing to multitask all over the city, Malik was first introduced to the brick-and-mortar business world when a family friend asked her to help manage his store, located in the French Quarter, on weekends.
“It was there where I learned how to run a business,” Malik said. “I would meet people from all over the world and I loved the small nuances that embody New Orleans, like the street musicians, performers, architecture and the history. I was young and very excited to be in the middle of it.”
Sales began to plummet at the store, and the owner decided to sell. With the help of Malik’s family, she was able to buy the store and turn the failing business into a successful one.
“After running the store by myself for a year, it began to do so well, in fact, that I asked my husband to quit his job to help me run and expand the business,” Malik said. “Thirty-three years, the rest is history.”
A prosperous party past and future
While Malik was able to turn a profit on a previously failing business, she had tactics in place to help plan for success, including a broad selection, a consumer-inclusive price point system and – what keeps any business going – passion.
“From the day that I started this business until now, I have always wanted to find unique souvenir products that are reasonably priced for the everyday consumer,” Malik said. “While we have masks that can range upwards of $500, we also carry 99-cent masks and everything in between.”
Because The Mask Factory caters to heavy tourist foot traffic, the Maliks offer shipping and ensure the range in their international customer base is reflected in stock. On top of more inexpensive masks, others come a bit higher-end, including masks that are metal, laser-cut or encrusted with costume jewelry.
“Our store looks like a Mardi Gras masquerade party year-round with three large rooms with over 300 different styles of masks,” Malik said. “We are also the original mask store in the French Quarter. Even for the most finicky of shoppers, I can guarantee you will walk away liking at least one mask.”
The Mask Factory strives to offer a broad selection, but being “the original mask store” in a city driven by Carnival, Mardi Gras, Halloween and costume-encouraged parties (which include most, if not all, parties in New Orleans) has helped the store’s success skyrocket. While the store’s prosperity blossomed, new Mask Factory locations started popping up around the city, reaching five stores total before a consolidated transition.
“At the height of our career we had stores spread all throughout the French Quarter,” Malik said. “However, in keeping with our vision and maintaining a comfortable work balance without stretching ourselves thin, we decided to downsize in recent years to our flagship location at 515 Decatur St. We have had our Decatur location since 1989. While larger chains are popping up around us, I hope to say that five years from now my husband and I will still be working together at our Decatur location, maybe this time with grandchildren running around our store.”
Loving the NOLA locale
Its French Quarter location draws plenty of business from tourists, but The Mask Factory’s dedication to its Crescent City community is loyal and wholehearted.
“We do pride ourselves on working with local artists and locally made products,” Malik said. “Our voodoo dolls and handcrafted porcelain masks are locally made and signed by the artist. We have been doing business with these local artisans for many years.”
While the community is uniquely its own for many reasons, including its rich cultural heritage, it’s also had a uniquely tragic history because of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, which is still affecting the city today.
“Unfortunately, after Hurricane Katrina many artists were displaced, their houses and studios were destroyed, or they simply couldn’t maintain the expense of keeping their business open,” Malik recounts.
But, Malik’s store exemplifies one way retailers can help embrace and restore their city – through offering community support and a means to persevere.
“It was important for my husband and me to support those artists that were affected by showcasing this diminishing art form. In the hardest of times, it helped us push through and maintain a sense of local pride,” she said. “By helping them, we helped ourselves cope.”
– By Leigh Jajuga, Assistant Editor
Photos courtesy of Mask Factory